In May last year, a friend and I took a trip to Arisaig on the west coast of Scotland.
Leaving the van at the Glenuig Inn, my companion and I set off across the Sound of Arisaig. The weather that week was incredible and we managed a mirror still crossing to Eigg, followed by a stunning couple of days circumnavigating both Eigg and Muck. Following our return to the mainland, we decided to return to an isolated beach we had already camped on a few days earlier.
The beach was situated on the peninsula lying south of the village of Arisaig. Even as the crow flies, our campsite was a good 6km from the nearest road that was likely to see any traffic, and the terrain between the two was rocky and very steep in places.
Once the camp was established, my companion decided to take a little wander across the bay. After some minutes a despondent shout alerted me to the fact that there was a problem. Whilst pottering amongst the dunes, he had stumbled and consequently severed the tendons adjoining the quadriceps muscle to the kneecap. Sitting there in the grass, 100m from camp, it became apparent that, although there was very little pain, my companion was completely unable to move his leg.
We attempted a laborious stumble back across the beach and then there was a decision to be made. There was no way that we could continue the trip, however I think there was an element of embarrassment that delayed the decision to contact the coast guard. We sat for some time, wondering whether he could manage a night in the tent and if we should reassess the situation in the morning.
Although initially fair, the winds were forecasted to pick up the following day and I did not fancy towing my friend across the sound of Arisaig – assuming we could even get him in his boat at all. I also considered all the consequences of a capsize with a useless leg and concluded that a rescue from the beach would be a much safer option for everyone involved.
By this time, we were well into the evening and having finally made a decision, my friend contacted Stornoway Coastguard via his VHF radio. The coastguard were fantastic and, obviously realising that we would be hard to reach by road, drafted in the RNLI who were expected to reach us from their station at Mallaig in around 40 minutes.
Soon after the call was made, it started to get dark. I scrambled around the camp trying to pack the tents and other belongings – we had no idea whether our things would be left behind and so everything just got stuffed randomly into drybags. In the disarray, I misplaced one of my midge nets. The other, which I kept in my buoyancy aid, was duly commandeered by my companion as he sat chair bound on the shoreline. Goodness knows where his nets were, however I experienced a fresh kind of hell that night! I’ve never been one to suffer greatly with midge bites, but as the darkness fell, I’m certain these critters were actually attempting to burrow under my eyelids in their thousands.
I heard the lifeboat well before seeing it and so positioned myself further along the rocks in an attempt to get a better view. As the deck lights appeared around the headland, I fired off a hand-held flare and held it high above my head. The whole bay was illuminated by its ferocious light and the smoke pouring out momentarily took care of my midge problem.
The Severn Class lifeboat is the largest in the RNLI’s fleet, however the helmsman expertly navigated the nearby islands and shallow waters in our little bay, before launching their tiny inshore Y-boat. It took several trips for the dinghy to ferry ourselves, all our kit, and both kayaks back to the all-weather lifeboat, where the crew loaded everything aboard with jovial greetings and big smiles. The lifeboat is an amazing piece of kit, and feeling very relieved and thankful, I have to admit I rather enjoyed the journey to Mallaig. At times like that, it’s easy to forget that not everyone is always so lucky and these heroic individuals regularly risk their own lives for the sake of those in peril on the sea. Truly incredible people.
Back in Mallaig, my friend was met off the lifeboat by an ambulance waiting to take him to Fort William hospital. Throughout, the amazing lifeboat crew went the extra mile and even offered to store our boats and kit in their crew room until the next morning. With me now being at risk of trying to find some accommodation at close to midnight, the crew had also arranged for some lovely coastguard volunteers to hang on for us and give me a lift back to the van in Glenuig.
In the end it turned out okay for us, but there are always lessons to be learned at times like these, and in hindsight they seem pretty obvious.
I realised how I rarely carry my radio or phone with me whilst on shore, they typically get left with the tent or in my buoyancy aid. As a regular solo paddler, this incident highlighted how accidents can happen anywhere and how you should have a reliable means of communication with you at all times.
Another consideration is the coverage you get from your VHF and/or mobile provider. On Mull, there were many locations where I had very little VHF reception, especially on beaches surrounded by cliffs. I went days without mobile reception and I have since learned (although not verified) that EE currently hold a contract with the emergency services on the west coast and Islands of Scotland, so they tend to have better coverage than most other providers in those areas. Still, it makes good sense to carry several means of communicating an emergency. I typically carry a mobile phone in a waterproof case, a VHF radio and a personal locator beacon. For longer expeditions, I also hope to take a real time tracking beacon such as the Spot device or the Garmin InReach, which will allow people to track me online.
I learned how you should make your decision early. As soon as it becomes apparent that you need assistance, make the call. Once darkness had fallen, I knew scrambling around on the rocks was putting me at risk of an injury myself. In our case, we had the right equipment for being found, however navigating in the darkness just added another complication for both ourselves and our rescuers to deal with.
Lastly, and especially for Scotland, I learned how you can never have too many midge nets. Every pocket should have one, even when you think you don’t usually need them!